The odd thing about classics is that even though you know what to expect, you don’t get it. I just finished reading Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of Homer’s The Odyssey , and was mightily surprised by it.

The thing is, you know how the story goes: Odysseus pisses off a god or two, then has a bunch of zany adventures while taking a decade to get home from the Trojan War. There’s Circe, there’s Scylla and Charbydis, there’s the Sirens, the Cyclops — all the stuff you’ve read a zillion times in a zillion secondary sources. Only, it turns out, that’s not actually what Homer’s poem really consists of.

Oh, sure, all that adventure-story stuff is there (though with more modern spellings — Kirke, Skylla, the Seirenes), but it’s only a portion of the whole book. We don’t even get to see Odysseus until we’re nearly 100 pages in; and he gets back to Ithaka with 100 pages to spare. In a real sense, the hero of The Odyssey is Telemakhos, and the real story is the deliverance of Odysseus’s household from the rapine of the suitors. All that voyage stuff is just filler in the middle.

The end result is a work that’s more human-centric and personal than I’d expected (moreso, I think, than The Iliad), but also a bit less fun. The Ithaka stuff is interesting, and makes the book deeper than I’d expected it to be; but it does drag on near the end. After he gets back to his home, Odysseus seems to spend about a week in disguise (much of it needlessly), and really draws out the resolution.

Still and all, good stuff and enjoyable reading; which, at a couple thousand years out, is high praise. And I remain fond of Fitzgerald’s translation, which balances neatly between the stuffy archaism that marks older public-domain translations, and the too-modern slang that Fagles uses.


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